The Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub is a six-mile area on Portland's Willamette River that transports and stores 90% of the state's fuel supply.

The Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub is a six-mile area on Portland's Willamette River that transports and stores 90% of the state's fuel supply.

Courtesy of Multnomah County


A Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake could potentially cause the biggest fuel spill in U.S. history right in the middle of Portland, according to a recent report. The report from ECONorthwest evaluates the potential damage a magnitude 8 or 9 earthquake could cause along a six-mile stretch of Portland’s industrial Northwest known as the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub. Oregon state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, wants to change the way fuel tanks there are regulated in an effort to strengthen them and, hopefully, prevent a giant spill. He joins us to talk about how his proposed legislation would work.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Back in August, we talked about a new report commissioned by Multnomah County and the City of Portland. It found that a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake could lead to an environmental disaster of enormous proportions in Portland and potentially cause the biggest fuel spill in US history. A fuller version of that report was released last week. It reemphasized the danger. Oregon State Senator Michael Dembrow, a Democrat from Portland, is a chief sponsor of a Bill that addresses that danger. Michael Dembrow, welcome back.

Michael Dembrow: Hi, Dave. Thanks, thanks for having me.

Miller: Yeah, thanks.

Dembrow: Hope you and your family are doing okay.

Miller: We’re doing fine, thank you. Likewise. It’s been a little while since we talked on this show about this issue, [it] was back in August and I’m sure a lot of folks didn’t hear that conversation. Can you remind us first of all what the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub is?

Dembrow: What’s known as the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub is a stretch of about five miles six miles along the Willamette River around the St. John’s Bridge a little to the north and the south where about 90% of this state’s fuel comes in and is stored before distribution all over the state. Unfortunately, it was built on soil that is very unstable. It’s river fill that was used to create this area – and when an earthquake hits it will liquefy, and it will send millions of gallons potentially into the Willamette River, then down to the Columbia. We’ll have explosions. If this is not treated, we are clearly facing a catastrophe that could affect Portland, but it’s really going to affect the whole state.

Miller: Can you give us  a sense for the potential scale of the disaster scenario as outlined by engineers in this report?

Dembrow: They believe that it will be on the order of the worst spills that we’ve had in the oceans from ocean tankers, except that it will be within the narrow confines of the river. And so it’s going to be that much more dangerous, and it will be dangerous obviously to aquatic life, to human life, but the financial cost is now estimated to be in the billions of dollars if we don’t start anticipating this problem and doing retrofits and taking other action that really is required by these tanks. Those that are very recent, the newer tanks, can probably handle this event but we have tanks in that area that are 100 years old, and for various reasons they will fail and it puts everyone at risk. I will say Dave, I actually heard that show that you did in August and it was right after that, I was hiking with my daughter in Forest Park, we decided that right after the session ended that we would once a week hike a bit of Forest Park and starting at the northwest end and so I went by the tanks every time we did that and thinking about your show and I will say this is a problem we’ve known about for a while, you know, I used to chair the Senate Environment Natural Resources Committee, and we actually had a bill in 2019 to start addressing this problem. And at the same time, what’s known as OSSPAC, the state seismic commission; I was working on this problem. They were working on a report. We were asked to hold off on any legislation until we heard their recommendations, which we did, and their recommendation was, essentially, pass the bill that we were proposing. So that’s why it’s coming back now, it’s overdue. This is a problem that we have known about now, for 10, 20 years. There have been a dozen reports, recommendations to deal with it. It’s clear that the government needs to step up and regulate the hub and come up with a coordinated plan, something that brings together federal action, state action, local action, industry action in order to address this problem.

Miller: So let’s turn to what specifically in this Bill, starting with the kinds of reports that fuel tank owners would have to provide to DEQ. In the first place, what would be required of them?

Dembrow: So the first step after this Bill has passed is DEQ will go into a rulemaking process where they will define what kinds of things the owner-operators need to look at their facilities in seeing how well prepared they are for this magnitude of an earthquake. They’ll also be writing rules around what mitigation plans would look like. And they’ll be doing this through a DEQ program, but in consultation with an engineering firm that they’ll be contracting with, that will ultimately, once the owner-operators do the self assessments according to these rules, and come up with their plans, this outside engineering firm working with DEQ and DOGAMI, our Department of Geology and Mineral Industries will assess the plans, see how effective they will be. There’ll probably be some back and forth between industry and the agency to come to an agreement on what the necessary course of action is. And they will have to start doing that work.


Miller: So to just make it really simple, the idea is if some fuel storage company has some very old tanks, they’d have to say, ‘yeah, this tank is from 1972 and it’s not likely to perform well in the earthquake.’ And then DEQ would say, okay, then you have to fix it?

Dembrow: Yes

Miller: And it would be up for the company to pay for that work?

Dembrow: It will be the responsibility of the company. And I will say that the bill does create a fund in the Treasury that we’re hoping that we will get some help, some federal support for this through the Federal Infrastructure Bill. and you know, as well as some other means to obviously, if we don’t take this action and the disaster happens, FEMA is going to have to come in and spend millions and millions and millions of dollars to address it. So this really seems like an area that federal Infrastructure dollars which are available now, should be going towards. In the long run, it’s going to save us a lot of money.

Miller: What have you heard from fuel companies about this in either conversations as you’ve been crafting the bill or testimony recently?

Dembrow: So none of them is opposed to the bill. Obviously, they’re concerned about what the cost might be for them but at the same time they recognize the danger and the risk and they want to help solve this problem. So we have had productive conversations with them I think. And one of the things that I think they’ve appreciated is that we do see this as a shared responsibility between the state and the industry. So we are going to pay for the work that DEQ has to do here, through the general fund dollars. They will have to pay a fee to help with the engineering analysis and then their own work. But you know that is the sort of shared approach that we’re taking. And I would say they very much appreciate that, as well as, they appreciate what will be our efforts to try to get federal support for this.

Miller: So as you noted, the reason that this is such a huge issue, it’s two things. One, the fact that this land is going to liquefy and the other is just the sheer volume of fuel, diesel, fuel oil, aviation fuel, that’s all in the same place. But the flip side of the fact that it’s all there is that when this hits, we’re actually going to need a lot of that fuel which leads us to the Energy Security Plan and another piece of this legislation. Can you explain what you have in mind?

Dembrow: So, the oversight work is going to be done by the Department of Environmental Quality, but our Department of Energy is tasked with creating what’s called an Energy Security Plan to plan for a variety of situations, but for this one, how do we get fuel to the Portland area in order to help rebuild? How do we get fuel to the other parts of the state that are going to need it, and as we need to rebuild, will tanks need to be located in other parts of the state? Probably; one of the good things is that if that were to happen, they would, I’m sure, be located on solid ground, not the kind of soil that the CEI Hub [Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub] is based on. What the bill does say is that, if one of the things that ODOE is gonna look at is if a new tank is constructed, we want to make sure that they’re not just going to be located in the backyards of vulnerable low income populations. That’s the standard M-O  [Modus Operandi] , I’m ashamed to say, that we’ve seen happen so often in the past. That is going to be taken into consideration and we’ll be working with our Environmental Justice Task Force to make sure that the locating decisions are done correctly. The second thing they’ll be looking at is, of course, this is all against the backdrop of our state’s commitment to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and hopefully, over time there will be less and less fossil fuel needed in the state, or in those tanks, and we want to make sure that whatever plans are being made for the future, they align with those goals. So we’re not building a bunch of tanks that become stranded assets because we don’t need them anymore. I do want to say one thing, though, and that is, we are hoping to shift more and more away from fossil fuels to renewable kinds of fuel, but those too, pose a risk if they go into the river or there’s a risk of explosion there, as well as fire.

Miller: I want to just ask you briefly, we have about a minute and a half left, but the last time we had you on and speaking of fossil fuels and getting away from them, we were talking about one of the Legislature’s Cap and Trade Bills. You worked a lot on those bills, which led to numerous walkouts and didn’t pass. This bill, on the other hand, it passed out of Committee recently in a unanimous bipartisan vote. Did the challenges you faced with Cap and Trade affect the way you approached this legislation?

Dembrow:  Yeah, I think so. I think the threat of the earthquake is well recognized, universally recognized. The immediate threat of explosions and fires and spills are easy to imagine, easier to imagine than the threat of climate change. So I think that has really helped. We have been getting a lot of support for this effort. Everyone who’s involved in Emergency Response and Emergency Management – Public Health, the Tribes, because of the impact on the river in particular, Environmental Justice Communities. And I think a lot of industry, as well. And so coming against the backdrop also of federal interest in infrastructure investment, I think that the stars do seem to be aligned right now...

Miller: Michael Dembrow

Dembrow: … that’s great.

Miller: Michael Dembrow, thanks very much for joining us today.

Dembrow: Okay, see you, Dave, thanks.

Miller: That’s Michael Dembrow, a Democratic State Senator from Portland, representing District 23.

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